Five species of bird that were discovered living in Hawaii on James Cook’s third epic voyage in the 1770s may now sadly be extinct, but a new study of their genetics has revealed them to be not what we thought they were. Instead of belonging to a family of birds that still lives today in Australia and Papua New Guinea, it turns out that the Hawaiian honeycreepers made up an entirely different family even though they looked and behaved almost exactly the same as their distant antipodian cousins.
That’s according to a study published this week in the journal Current Biology by Robert Fleischer, Helen James, and Storrs Olson from the National Zoological Park at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
All that remains of the Hawaiian honeycreepers are dead specimens in museums – they once roamed the islands, where they sipped nectar from flowers with their long curved beaks. But is was from these carcasses that the researchers managed to extract nuclear DNA which revealed that these species were closely related to other birds including waxwings and silky flycatchers which they look nothing like and in fact were only distantly related to the Australasian honeyeaters which they were spitting image of.
What it means is that the two groups of honeyeaters independently evolved to look very similar to each other and to occupy a very similar role in the ecosystem – a process known as convergent evolution.
It’s the same process that makes other pairs of species look alike even when they are not closely related, such as modern day dolphins and ancient extinct Ichthyosaurs which had a similar long snout, dorsal fin and wide tail, but which were a type of reptile and not mammals like dolphins are.
The Hawaiian honeyeaters went extinct between the 1850s and the 1980s due to combination of problems including the introduction of diseases and predators to Hawaii. And even though they are no-longer with us, the Hawaiian honeyeaters have been posthumously given their own family name, the Mohoidae.